Tuesday 1st March 7:30pm – The Tunnock’s Challenge Cup – The Balmoral Stadium, Aberdeen
The two dates in the Fuller household I am nailed on to be away for are Pancake Day and Father’s Day. Despite the slow post-pandemic return to work travel, my previous schedule of ridiculous travel has been replaced by regular trips to Leicester…and Scotland. And for the second time in just 5 days I was back north of the border, and what would you know, there was a new ground to visit. Funny that.
For so many years the Scottish professional leagues were a closed shop. It was an annual joke to see the same couple of teams at the bottom of the fourth tier, safe in the knowledge they would not face any calls for relegation. Yet in the Highland and Lowland Leagues there were teams significantly better on and off the pitch, waiting in the ranks.
Cove Rangers exemplify that perfectly. The current Scottish League One leaders, nomads for just over three years after the sale of their spiritual home in the Aberdeen suburb of Cove, finally moved into their new stadium in the summer of 2018. Twelve months later they celebrated promotion into the professional leagues after a play off win against perennial 42nd placers East Stirlingshire.
You can’t deny the ground is smart and functional….it’s just in the middle of nowhere. The main stand sits astride the half way line and there’s three smallish “pop up” stands on the far side. Similar in a way to Horsham’s Camping World Stadium if you’ve been there. If you haven’t then think Stranraer’s Stair Park..no? Just Google it for yourself then.
As with many other new builds it is remote. Not quite Peterhead remote (no train stations within 30 miles) but a fair way out of Aberdeen to require careful planning. If you are driving here then it’s easy to get to and easy to park. If you aren’t then good luck, especially for a midweek game where, after traversing an industrial estate you wait in hope that the half hourly bus actually sees you in the darkness and stops. Of course there’s the walking option, about an hour and with very little pit stops on the way isn’t appealing on a freezing cold night.
But there’s a regal surprise waiting for any fans who put the effort in in terms of a meaty feast. The Balmoral – could be named after the stadium, or the Queen’s favourite country retreat. But whoever decided to fill a pastry crust with chicken, stuffing, gravy and a big spoonful of haggis and put it at the top of the menu deserves a place in Masterchef’s final. Absolutely top notch – one of those is not enough although you have to be quick because come kick off time they were all gone, providing perfect meaty insulation against the plunging temperatures.
The visitors, sitting just one place, albeit one division, above Cove Rangers arrived low on confidence, with just two wins in their last ten (both against Ayr United) but were ahead within 65 seconds as Aidan Fitzpatrick chased down a long ball, steadied himself and smashed it home from 10 yards to send their fans wild. Fair do’s to them – it’s a 4 hour drive or nearly 6 hour train ride from Dumfries.
Few of those travelling fans could have argued if Cove Rangers had gone in 2 or 3 up. But they didn’t. Somehow, a combination of resolute defending, inspired goalkeeping and luck kept the ball out. With no lies left the fans shuffled around, hands in pockets, thinking of the glamour of a Tunnock’s Challenge Cup Final against either Kilmarnock or Raith Rovers in April.
But sometimes football has a habit of kicking you in the arse and that’s what happened here to Cove Rangers. Despite home advantage, the momentum of current form, the possession and the best pie in town it wasn’t Cove Rangers night. That 2nd minute Fitzpatrick goal sent the Doonhamers into the caramel wafer final at a venue to be determined in 4 weeks.
Thankfully, the Post Office Depot next to the stadium had a shift change meant I had company at the bus stop and we could form a human chain to stop the 3A bus. Twenty minutes later I was back in the bosom of the Granite City, not understanding the fuss about being so remote.
I doubt this will be the last work visit to Scotland before the end of the season but I’ll have to cover some miles before I find something as beautiful as the Balmoral Pie…apart from the Killie Pie…oh, and the Bridies at Inverness Caledonian Thistle. But you get my point.